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Opinion Soon we’ll use science to make people more moral


Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week, we’re talking about transhumanism. Need a primer? Catch up here.

James J. Hughes is executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and the associate provost for institutional research, assessment and planning at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Sometimes, people do terrible things because they have a tragic misunderstanding of what it means to be good. Sometimes we do regrettable things because we aren’t strong enough to be as good as we would like. Fortunately, emerging neuroscience suggests that we will soon be able to both fix those with broken moral compasses and tune up our own internal morality.

Social neuroscience is revealing that much of our capacity for virtue is set at birth. Qualities like self-control, empathy, deliberation and fairness are substantially genetically and neurologically determined. For instance, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and the likelihood of ending up in the criminal justice system have all been linked to the genes that regulate the neurochemical dopamine. Self-control has been linked to having a larger, more active and better-connected prefrontal cortex, which is able to control the more impulsive parts of the brain.

In defense of transhumanism

Today, the medications used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder boost dopamine signaling and help give prefrontal executive control the upper hand. These stimulants are just one of the “moral enhancers” that are already in common use. More are on the way.

Drugs, devices and gene therapies will soon allow us to safely suppress our appetites with a level of control only seen in ascetics and achieve transcendent states previously only accessible to yogis. Addictions will be treatable with implants, vaccines and therapies that enable the brain to unlearn dependencies. Psychedelic drug studies and brain imaging of meditators are suggesting ways to turn off neurotic self-absorption and tune into oneness and awe.

The emerging debate over the use of drugs and devices for moral enhancement has had three principal viewpoints: those who focus on boosting moral sentiments such as empathy; those who would just boost moral reasoning; and the skeptics. While the former two groups accept the goal of moral enhancement — and differ over the best method — the skeptics reject the project. They argue that moral enhancement therapies are overhyped, and that even if morality drugs were effective, they would be bad for our character to rely on them.

It is certainly true that the initial enthusiasm for certain moral enhancement therapies has been tempered by subsequent research. Dozens of studies have suggested that genes that regulate oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone,” affect trust and empathy, and that empathy is boosted when subjects snort oxytocin. But it now appears that the effects of boosting oxytocin were over-reported and that some of the hormone’s effects are less than cuddly — oxytocin tends to boost empathy only for people like us, increasing ethnocentric “in-group bias.”

To the extent that drugs, devices or therapies do boost positive moral impulses, the skeptics are also right that they could be too much of a good thing. Too much self-control can make Jack a dull boy, and too much empathy can lead to unfairness. Antidepressants increase our sensitivity to the pain of others, but they also reduce our willingness to punish wrongdoers and increase our tolerance of injustice.

This is one of the arguments for moral enhancement by making people smarter rather than nicer; to find the golden mean, we need to be able to distinguish between the right and wrong times to be caring, impartial or courageous. On the other hand, as the ancients have also long suggested, to be truly moral a person must not only understand the right course of action but also want to do the right thing. The cognitively enhanced psychopath will only be more effective in his or her selfishness. We need to fix broken impulses and broken thinking.

Transhumanists are searching for a dystopian future

Clearly, the field of moral enhancement will need to reengage with the wisdom traditions to flesh out a more sophisticated understanding of what a mature moral character entails. For optimal flourishing, we need to balance wisdom and compassion, self-control and transcendence. Given the freedom to experiment with our growing toolbox for self-improvement, we will each need to discover our ideal morality settings.

Yet it is likely that the front line of moral enhancement experimentation will not be voluntary as we begin using these new therapies to treat psychopaths and criminals. Many governments already offer testosterone suppression to sex offenders, substance abuse treatments to the chemically dependent and psychiatric medications to mentally ill offenders. Eventually we will also develop treatments for psychopathy and violent impulsiveness and fulfill the promise of actual rehabilitation. At the same time, these tools will enable more effective forms of brainwashing and enforced conformity (the defense of cognitive liberty will require strictly circumscribing who is subject to involuntary moral enhancement).

I believe that free societies will be able to achieve collective security and moral progress without neurological coercion, by tolerating individual experimentation with morally enhancing technologies. With the aid of science, we will all be able to discover our own paths to technologically enabled happiness and virtue.

Explore these other perspectives:

Charles T. Rubin: Transhumanists are searching for a dystopian future

David Vincent Kimel: In defense of transhumanism

Ronald Bailey: Technology won’t undermine human dignity. Fear of change will.